Cheerfully postmodern and energetic, the romance-adventure hybrids of grad student Lauren Willig have escaped the clutches of niche fiction and made their way to the front of the bookstore. Her first, The Secret History Of The Pink Carnation, married Regency romance to the swashbuckling spy stories of the Napoleonic Wars. In the sequel, The Masque Of The Black Tulip, she adds more amateur sleuthing to the mix, and the result is a breakneck mashup of Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy, and Carolyn Keene. But the mixture runs a bit thin over nearly 400 pages. By the time the heroine succumbs to her passions while pursuing a mysterious phantom and trying to catch a French agent, readers might start jumping straight to the scenes that channel their favorite genre—romance, espionage, or detection—and skimming the rest.
The protagonist of this sequel is Henrietta Selwick, the sister of the notorious Pink Carnation, a daring English spy. (That's discounting the present-day framing story—not that hard a task—in which a history graduate student battles her unruly feelings for Colin Selwick, whose family archives hold the secrets of the floral-themed pseudonyms.) Young Henrietta decides to do a little spying of her own when she tires of simply relaying her sister's coded missives to the War Office, and when one of those letters reports the London debut of a most dangerous French agent called the Black Tulip. To add urgency to the mission, her brother's best friend Miles Dorrington appears vulnerable to the charms of a mysterious lady in black, which makes Henrietta unaccountably furious. Miles is tracking the sinister Lord Vaughn, whose clandestine meetings in seedy taverns mark him as a possible traitor, and a definite rake.
Willig knows her history, and she makes good fun of its more ridiculous aspects. The fop-or-hero motif mined by The Scarlet Pimpernel has a basis in fact, but also lends itself smartly to parody like Jane's breathless coded messages, in which a "horrid novel" is a dangerous French agent and "carousing" means "engaged in a mortal struggle with Bonaparte's minions." But the high-society milieu of the Regency romance works better in smaller doses. After a score of references to the ton and curricles and quadrilles and the Serpentine, even the most devoted fan of the period is likely to feel that there must have been more to it. Without the disposable framing story, Willig's sly interjections of decidedly modern humor into history would be far more delightful. And with a judicious editor, her streamlined tales could inaugurate a whole new field of chick-lit pleasure.